Criticism for the Scarlett Letter

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The Scarlett Letter

Nathanial Hawthorne envisioned The Scarlet Letter as a short story published in a collection, but it outgrew that purpose. Most critics accept Hawthorne’s definition of it as a “romance” rather than a novel. The novel begins with an introductory autobiographical essay, “The Custom House” where Hawthorne describes working as a custom officer in Salem, Massachusetts. He describes coming across documents that provide him with the basis for The Scarlett Letter. The introductory essay fictionalizes the origins of the story. Hawthrone masks his literary invention by making it seem “historical”. He calls his motivation for writing the essay “a desire to put [himself] in [his] true position as editor, or very little more.” This indicates Hawthorne’s interest in creating a feeling of “authenticity” and historical importance for his narrative.

A lot of the criticism for The Scarlet Letter consists of its relation to history and the Puritan Laws of the respected time period. Howthrone’s use of unrelated historical details should be understood not only as significant, but also as symbolic. Hawthorne was very interested in creating an authentic past exhibiting the history of the colonies and his Puritan ancestors. Hawthorne invites the reader to relate The Scarlet Letter to contemporary politics of the 1840’s. “the past is not dead”- it lives on in the custom house, and other contemporary political institutions. Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter when he was recently pulled from his administrative position, as a self-proclaimed “politically dead man”.

In the opening of the novel we wait for Hester to come out of the prison. We overhear others muttering about her offences, there is very little sympathy for Hester. In The Scarlet Letter, the fault shared by the Puritan settlers, the women outside the prison and Arthur Dimmesdale most of all, is devout hypocrisy: they naively imagine that sin, or “human frailty and...
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